It’s been a long time, so I’m not sure anyone knew what to expect from Mo Walker last night in his first game since December of 2010.
Many fans – who expected Walker to return last season, but instead read about setback after setback – were probably just hoping he actually did, in fact, play. His teammates were likely just happy for a guy that has gone through a lot to get there. Coach Tubby Smith, knowing that Walker is still at least 15 pounds overweight, was likely just trying not to wince every time the forward came down hard.
So maybe that’s why when Walker actually, you know, played pretty well, there was a palpable buzz surrounding the player.
Walker, who said he was around 295 pounds on media day (and Smith said he hadn’t lost since then) scored on a pretty hook shot 31 seconds after first entering the game, to a raucous applause (from the modest crowd of 8907). He again showcased the soft hands we remember, snagging a few errant passes for scores and aptly passing. Most impressively, while it’s obvious that he still needs to lose some weight, he moved around pretty well for someone that size. His knee didn’t seem to be a thought in his mind.
Afterward, Smith lavished praise on the forward, who scored eight points in nine minutes.
“He was just grinning and having a good time, but he just knows how to play,” Smith said. “That’s what he does well – he knows when to pass the ball. He’s very patient in the post. And he plays great position basketball… he makes everybody better by being on the court.”
Part of the rush of compliments comes, partly, because – again --no one knew what to expect. Walker still has plenty of improving to do, particularly with his free throw shot, which Smith called “awkward” and “a knuckleball.” He needs to continue to work on his fitness and be more active rebounding (he had just one).
But the truth is, it was a great start for Walker and a promising sign for the Gophers, who simply lacked size last season.
“You guys saw out there, he’s a big body and people tend to run into him,” Trevor Mbakwe said. “It’s not very successful [for the other team].”
Walker’s return, along with Mbakwe gives the Gophers a significant upgrade in the paint and on the boards – an advantage we didn’t see last night (the Gophers outrebounded the Mavericks just 36-30) but should come with time and as the pair shake off the rust of not playing.
“We didn’t have anybody that size and that type of physical aggressiveness and bulk (last year),” Smith said. “Ralph gave us what he could. And Elliott gave us what he could. But that’s the difference, and I think they’ll be difference-makers this year by being available to us.”
- Smith said Walker was able to make some improvements to his game while not playing, including a left-handed jump hook, which we saw twice last night. “Right away he was able to use his left hand, something he couldn’t do before,” Smith said.
- Walker has shown great touch with his shot, even around 15 feet or so, but asked whether the big man has the green light to shoot a 3-pointer, Smith said: “No. But he made one the other day in practice. The shot clock was running down. I think it was yesterday. He looked over at me like that’s what he was supposed to do, but no.”